By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
Each week, NASCAR Editor David Morgan will break down who’s hot and who’s not after the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race weekend. Today, we break down the First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
Kyle Busch – There was only one driver that was truly happy after Sunday’s race at Martinsville and that was Kyle Busch, who won for the fifth time this season and punched his ticket to the championship race at Homestead.
Busch would lead for 184 laps on the day, but it was the last lap that mattered the most. Taking advantage of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin on the final restart, Busch took over the lead on the last lap and held off a hard charging Martin Truex, Jr. to score the win, his second at Martinsville.
“It’s just a great win for this whole M&M’s Halloween Toyota Camry,” said Busch. “Awesome to get to victory lane here at Martinsville. You know I wanted to win Charlotte, Martinsville and Homestead and that’ll make us this year’s champions, so we’ve got one more. Just wanted to say our guys did an awesome job preparing this car. We weren’t the best all day, but we put ourselves in the right spots there at the end and there was kind of chaos ensuing and none of it was our fault, we just came out on the right end of the stick. Can’t say enough about NOS Energy Drinks, Cessna, DVX Sunglasses. My son Brexton’s at home, he’s not here with us this weekend, so want to say hey to him, we’ll see you later tonight buddy. Looking forward to going to Homestead.
“It’s huge. It’s our opportunity to succeed and you know God’s given us every opportunity to go do that. Joe and J.D. Gibbs, Coy Gibbs, everybody on this Joe Gibbs Racing team, they’re phenomenal. Adam (Stevens, crew chief) and the guys had a great race car for me prepared for this weekend. We tested up here, we came here and we were really good yesterday and we just came out on top today.”
Brad Keselowski – After his win at Talladega a few weeks ago, Keselowski called Martinsville a must-win for his team and the 2012 series champion nearly pulled off the hat trick on the half-mile track by winning all three stages, but had to settle for a fourth place finish instead.
Keselowski led 108 laps and found himself with a substantial lead with less than five laps to go in regulation when his Team Penske teammate Joey Logano cut a tire a spun to bring out the caution and setting up a restart. Despite the bottom groove being the preferred groove, Keselowski elected to take the top groove on the restart and it bit him, with Elliott bumping him out of the way a lap later for the lead.
Though Keselowski didn’t get the win he was looking for, he still survived the late race chaos for a top-five and carries a 29 point advantage over the elimination cut-off into Texas.
“There was a lot of hard fighting here because it’s a short track,” said Keselowski. “That’s what short tracks are kind of about is rooting and gauging. You try not to take anybody out, but you’ve got to sometimes rub a little bit. But we had a really great Alliance Truck Parts Ford. We were able to lead laps and win the two stages and bring home a solid finish and that’s something to be proud of.”
Martin Truex, Jr. – Truex hasn’t had the best runs at Martinsville over the course of his career, but in the last few years, he has turned things around on the short track, where he still has yet to visit victory lane and score a coveted grandfather clock trophy.
After starting on the outside of the front row, Truex had a quiet day, hanging around the top-five for most of the day and making his move in the closing laps to try and go for the win.
On the final restart, Truex took advantage of Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin battling for the lead to pull alongside Busch on the final lap. Though he got loose off of Turn 4 and Busch beat him back to the line, Truex still came away with his best finish ever at Martinsville and he only added to his points lead, which now stands at a staggering 69 points above the cut line.
“It’s just Martinsville you know?” said Truex. “Short-track racing. At the end everybody’s trying to get to Homestead – punch your ticket, but you know really good day for our team. This has been a struggle for us, this place. It just – you know to run second here is awesome. I think we had a fifth or sixth-place car all day long. We couldn’t quite get better than that, but I’m really proud of that effort for everybody – for all our guys. So we fought hard all day, we didn’t give up and we had a shot at it there at the last lap. Got inside of Kyle (Busch), just couldn’t get the power down off of (turn) four. I didn’t want to be the one to knock him out of the way for the win. Maybe I should have, but I don’t know.”
Race Fans – Short track racing is the lifeblood of stock car racing in America and Sunday’s race at Martinsville further illustrated why these type of tracks are loved by nearly everyone involved. Cars running inches apart, bouncing off of each other, tempers flaring, and everything else that comes with it…what’s not to love?
Add in the fact that Martinsville’s recently installed lighting system got its first workout on the Cup Series stage with a place in the championship race on the line and fans definitely got their money’s worth with this one. After a race like we had, it makes you wonder why in the hell we don’t have more short tracks on the Cup Series schedule instead of the excess of 1.5 mile tracks that currently take up the majority of the year.
Several drivers, including Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Clint Bowyer took to Twitter after the race to show their appreciation for short track racing
I will miss racing @MartinsvilleSwy. I deeply love short track action. NOTHING in racing is better than a short track race under the lights.
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) October 30, 2017
I wish the remainder of the races this year were short tracks. Sport needs MORE short tracks! Only thing with an aero issue was the flags!
— Clint Bowyer (@ClintBowyer) October 30, 2017
Chase Elliott – Elliott, who led 123 laps on the day, looked to be in the catbird seat for his first career win and a ticket to Homestead as he led with four laps to go, but Hamlin put the bumper to him entering Turn 3, sending his car spinning driver’s side into the outside wall. He would get the car re-fired and finished the race in 27th, but the contact still had him angry after the checkered flag flew, and he was quick to let Hamlin know.
On the cool down lap, Elliott pulled up alongside Hamlin and sideswiped him into the wall, but the fireworks weren’t done between the two yet. The two drivers then pulled onto pit road and had a heated conversation for a few minutes before being separated.
Elliott could be seen telling Hamlin “You wrecked me!” a few different times and then not accepting his excuses by replying “C’mon man!” before they walked away from each other.
With his 27th place finish, Elliott now has his work cut out for him over the next two weeks to be able to make it to the Championship 4 at Homestead as he sits 26 points out of the top-four in points.
“My Momma always said if you don’t have anything nice not to say anything at all. So, it’s not even worth my time. We’ll just go on to Texas,” said Elliott.
“It’s just not necessary. We had a great restart and there was nobody pushing him into Turn 3. So, I wanted to see the replay. That’s what I thought happened and that’s what happened. And it’s definitely 100 percent unnecessary and uncalled for.
“We had a great car today and we had an opportunity. We had a good restart there at the end and felt like I was doing what I needed to do. And I can’t control his decisions and whatever the hell that was.”
Joey Logano – After starting on pole and leading 59 laps, Logano looked to have at least a top-five in the bag as the laps wound down, but after contact from Kyle Busch damaged his left-rear tire, he went for a spin in Turn 2 on lap 493, dropping him back to 24th at the finish. Sunday’s race was a microcosm of how his 2017 season has gone, marking his 14th finish outside the top-20 this year.
Logano’s spin also likely cost teammate Brad Keselowski the win as Keselowski had pulled out to a substantial lead over Chase Elliott when Logano ran into his trouble, so it’s a wonder why he didn’t pit with the amount of damage he had on his car at the time.
“I was passing the 24,” said Logano. “I had a good run on him and the 18 sent it three-wide. I tried to give him room and he slid up. I don’t know. I have to watch the replay, but he slid up and got up in the left rear and cut it down.”
Jimmie Johnson – Martinsville has been Johnson’s playground over the years with the seven-time champion winning nine times at the track, but on Sunday, the No. 48 team was completely out in left field and never was a factor for the win.
The trouble started in qualifying after Johnson spun and only managed the 24th fastest time and things didn’t get any better in the race. Though he finished Stage 1 and 2 in fourth and 10th, respectively, the final stage when performance mattered the most was his worst portion of the race as he ran around 15th for most of the closing laps and would finish 12th.
Leaving Martinsville, Johnson sits fifth in points, three points out of the Championship Four.
“We were just terrible all day,” said Johnson. “Oh, what a bummer. We had high hopes for this weekend. Man, it just didn’t turn out so well. So, we scored some points here and there. We will go to the next one and try to get more.”